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PPE Shortages Persist Nearly 9 Months Into The Coronavirus Pandemic

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We've had nearly nine months of the pandemic to get this right, and still, many health care workers do not have the personal protective equipment that they need. Will Stone reports.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: There are days when ER nurse Rachel Heintz (ph) leaves her shift, certain it couldn't get worse.

RACHEL HEINTZ: And yet somehow, it is just a little bit worse every single time.

STONE: Heintz works in Bismarck, N.D., where hospitals have been buckling under the unrelenting flood of COVID patients for weeks.

HEINTZ: There are times when you feel like, I should be in four different places at once. People's lives are hanging on, and I can't even check if their oxygen level is OK or check if their airway is OK. Like, just the basic make sure that they're still alive.

STONE: Not everywhere is quite as bad as North Dakota, but many places are starting to look that way. More than a thousand hospitals are critically short on staff, and the fears among health care workers are familiar - not enough people and not enough personal protective equipment.

HEINTZ: We are still worrying N95s for the entirety of our shift, whether that's 12 hours - or the other day, I worked a 16-hour shift.

STONE: Before the pandemic, that would be unheard of. These N95 masks shield against tiny airborne droplets. And they're only supposed to be used once. But now Heintz considers herself somewhat lucky. She even gets one per shift. Mary Turner, who works in a COVID ICU, is president of the Minnesota Nurses Association.

MARY TURNER: I have nurses in Minnesota that still wear their masks eight to 10 shifts.

STONE: Shortages of PPE aren't quite as widespread as during the spring. Some states have stockpiles, but there's huge variability, and it's difficult to track. There's not enough funding. Domestic manufacturers still can't keep up. And there are ongoing issues with the global supply chain. Dr. Shikha Gupta is with the nonprofit Get Us PPE.

SHIKHA GUPTA: We simply don't have the supply that we need to match the demand that we're going to see over the coming months.

STONE: She says even big academic hospitals are starting to reuse PPE. It's not just masks. She says soon, even gloves will be really hard to find.

GUPTA: We could have learned from our mistakes, but we haven't.

STONE: Often, health care workers on designated COVID units are the only ones hospitals can give N95 masks. Maria Gray (ph) is a nurse in one of Missouri's worst hot spots. Not long ago, she spent two days with a patient who then later tested positive.

MARIA GRAY: I have to listen to their lungs. I have to listen to their heart. But we're not issued N95s in that unit, even though, technically, we're being exposed.

STONE: Luckily, she didn't get infected, but she worries. They're already strapped for help, and cases are rising fast.

GRAY: The house is full almost every night. We're, like, right at the beginning.

STONE: Even places where it's not quite as dire yet, health care workers already feel the strain. Cindy Franck (ph) is a nurse in Bremerton, Wash. Over the summer. Franck's hospital had an outbreak of COVID. More than 70 staff and patients got infected. Several people died.

CINDY FRANCK: And now the staff is just stressed out. They don't have any confidence. Nurses are quitting. It's just a real mess.

STONE: And for some health care workers, concerns go beyond PPE and staffing. Jessica Scarlett (ph), a travel nurse, is still recuperating after three months of caring for no one but COVID patients at a hospital in Texas.

JESSICA SCARLETT: I needed a break emotionally and physically. You could just see the fear in their eyes. There was one guy. He would always say, please sit with me. I'm really scared. The day before I left, he was intubated.

STONE: Scarlett says she may take another assignment as long as there's adequate PPE. But this time, it will only be for a few weeks.

For NPR News, I'm Will Stone.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLDPLAY'S "SUNRISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.